On February 6, 2018, a new ice hockey world record was set. 4,361 meters above sea level in the Indian Himalayas, a group of hockey enthusiasts led by Adam Sherlip of the American Charity Hockey Foundationthey reached an icy lake in Ladakh and played the highest ice hockey game in history on a makeshift ice rink.
It wasn’t a simple undertaking – jet lag, altitude sickness, and even the difficult logistics of transporting the equipment to the site turned out to be an almost groundbreaking challenge – but the choice of location was not as strange as it seems at first glance.
The Hockey Foundation has been operating in Ladakh since 2009, donating more than 7,000 pieces of equipment to the local population ahead of the 2018 game.
And this world record match was just one of many ice hockey matches that have been held on the icy lakes of the Himalayas since The Hockey Foundation began operating in the region more than 13 years ago.
Olympians join India’s hockey revolution
You’d be forgiven if India wasn’t the first place you thought of when it came to ice hockey. However, in fact, the Himalayan region is an ideal place for the development of winter sports.
Indian speed skater Vishwarag Jadeja, who trains in the Himalayas, told Olympics.com: “India’s ten provinces are covered by the Himalayas, so winter sports offer great opportunities. There are 16 lakes in this region and I have only explored two. These lakes are about 100 km long and 20 km wide and are completely frozen.”
In Ladakh, there are only two or three months of the year when you can play on the lakes before the ice melts. But during these months, hundreds of women, men and children take to the ice, armed with sticks and pucks, often supplied by the NHL, to pursue their passion for ice hockey.
And their passion even gives them the opportunity to associate with the best hockey players in the world, such as six-time Olympian and former Canadian captain Hayley Wickenheiser, who visited the region to train young female hockey players from the area in the sport.
“They welcomed us with open arms and were very excited to be on the ice with us and learning from what we had to say,” she told Olympics.com.
Wickenheiser brought over 70 bags of gear for young players to play with and was touched by the number of others who joined the training sessions.
“[There were] disabled kids on cardboard pieces and then we put them on a sled and suddenly they could fly across the ice,” she said, looking back at the diverse group of kids who had joined her this week.
When asked what her reason for coming to Ladakh was, Wickenheiser made her intentions clear.
“Just to spread the message that hockey is for everyone,” she said. “It’s the most popular sport in the region and the kids don’t really go to school there, so there’s a lot of issues with suicide, hopelessness and boredom.”
Ice hockey to highlight climate change
There is another reason why hockey is played in the Himalayas, and that is to highlight the impact of climate change.
In 2020, The Hockey Foundation and Ladakh Winter Sports Club, in partnership with Randstad India and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, organized The Last Game as part of a series of hockey games played around the world to highlight the effects of climate change.
NHL Hall of Famer Slava Fetisov led this initiative as India’s team faced the United Nations, and the event included 8,000 canvas bags distributed to the people of the Ladakh region to reduce plastic consumption in the region.
Randstad India CEO Paul Dupuis, who spoke at the event, highlighted the climate change issues already affecting Ladakh, with Times of India reportage visible loss of ice in the surrounding region’s glaciers.
“I think sport is the best link,” said Dupuis. “It builds community, it builds friendships, and today it will build awareness of climate change. We know that everyone here in Ladakh has been affected by climate change. And we’re going to raise awareness, we’re going to be loud and tell the world your story and take action to support you.”
The future of ice hockey in the Himalayas
Because ice hockey has gained such a strong foothold in the Himalayas, the impact is sure to be felt for years and decades to come.
In 2008, the Ladakh team took part in the Asian Challenge Cup in Abu Dhabi for the first time and since then the team, which includes many people from the region, has traveled extensively to play international matches. And in 2009, the Indian national ice hockey team began competing internationally, led by The Hockey Foundation founder Sherlip.
The popularity of the sport has become even more evident in recent years with ice hockey making its first appearance on the 2020 Khelo India Winter Games program.
And with Milano Cortina four years from now, there’s even a chance we’ll see an Indian team – perhaps including one training in the Himalayas – compete in the next Winter Olympics in Italy’s mountainous regions.